China vs Democratic Countries: Attitude Differences

Lai Jeng-jer, a gay rights activist from Taiwan, at his Beijing cafe, Two Cities, 2012

Lai Jeng-jer, a gay rights activist from Taiwan, at his Beijing cafe, Two Cities, 2012

Yes, I have lived in China for a number of years. There are quite a number of situations that completely shocked me, coming from Toronto, Canada, a democratic country. While people in China and Canada are people, people who eat, who work, who play, there are subtle differences in society that only hit home when you are in China, experience it, and think to yourself “What just happened”?

I was reading a New York Times article about a gay rights activist who moved from Taipei to Beijing, On Taking Gay Rights From Taipei to Beijing: Don’t Call It a ‘Movement’. In Taiwan he opened a gay bookstore. He then moved to and opened up a gay cafe and lounge in Beijing.

Here in Toronto, this would not be news worthy, nor worthy of any attention at all. That this guy actually moved from Taipei to Beijing and opened up any gay establishment, really shows his bravery. Not long ago Beijing police would break down the doors of gay couples, beat them up and arrest them. Being gay in China used to be illegal, though I am unsure about today. Still, China is a very conservative culture and in general, same sex anything is not tolerated.

But I digressed into the gay topic. What so profoundly struck me in this article was the following quote, where he held an event at his cafe, police came, checked everyone’s ID, the police left, and guests acted as if nothing different happened.

On Christmas Eve two years ago, we hosted a gay meet-up party at our cafe and invited about 20 people. In the middle of that, some police officers showed up and asked everyone to show their IDs. I was shocked, but our guests looked extremely calm. One after another, they took out their ID cards and showed them to the police. After the police finished checking them, they said fine and left. The party resumed, and our guests acted like nothing had happened. But I found it strange that they seemed so used to this kind of police intrusion.

Lai Jeng-jer, a gay rights activist from Taiwan, at his Beijing cafe, Two Cities, 2012

Lai Jeng-jer, a gay rights activist from Taiwan, at his Beijing cafe, Two Cities, 2012

Gay or not, in a cafe or on he street, here in Canada police need some sort of reason to ask you for ID. For police to demand ID without provocation is illegal. Yes, police here do abuse their powers and can do near whatever they want, but if caught they can and are charged. Suffice it to say that if you are in a cafe and police arrive, there must be a very good reason for them to ask you for ID. You also have the right to ask them why they are asking for ID. When police ask for ID this is called “carding”, and in is increasingly rare.

That this guy’s guests in Beijing would provide the police with ID and then carry on as if nothing unusual happened is indicative that such police interactions are commonplace. I am sure, as with police here in Toronto, that if you asked them why they are asking for ID, the police would get offended and might actually result in a physical altercation, or getting thrown in jail. The article also notes of great difficulties in organizing gay events in China, and is careful to not mention anything that resembles a “movement”. Any “movement”, be it church or English Corner, will get severe scruity in China. No “movements”, please.

Yes, living with heavy police presence in China is very common, but for a foreigner, be they from Taiwan or Canada, this is most disturbing. Foreigners, used to proper police restraint, are very unnerved by these police interactions.

I was once stopped by Chinese police in a very small town. Police saw pink spots on my legs and arms and wanted to know if I had some communicable disease. It turned out that I had a lot of mosquito bites and had put calamine lotion on them to sooth the itch. This method of soothing the itch for insect bites seems to not happen in China. If it was not for my relative and her quick thinking and folksy manner, I might have landed up spending time in a Chinese police cell. She told me to never, ever be that close to their police at any time, as they could cause me a lot of trouble.

As a corollary I do notice that Chinese people here in Toronto are very wary, afraid even, of police. Maybe it is the language barrier, or maybe they carry over their fear from China to Toronto. That would be very natural. It is not to say that our police do not abuse their powers, as they do, but there are laws that possibly mitigate this risk of any interaction with police. In general, if you are courteous to police they will be courteous to you. I have had two experiences here in Canada when that was not the case. I’m sure if I was black that my view would be completely different. When I was in China I did not even think about walking up to police and asking any question.

Random police checks for ID in China might be shocking to foreigners, and not at all shocking to Chinese, is disturbing to me. This should not be the way the world works. China needs to reign in their police so that police power does not get abused.

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